Build back better.

That was the focus of the 145th annual gathering of the Colorado Press Association, where a mix of national and local journalists tackled strategies to better engage and serve communities, rebuild trust and sustain local journalism.

A core theme: The path to local news sustainability starts with trust, and trust has to be earned by local journalists.

“People for the most part don’t trust institutions, they trust people,” noted Michael Bolden, CEO of the American Press Institute. “So focus on building those relationships with the community. Where can newsrooms build bridges? How can local news foster community trust?”

Trust-building can be a process of small, simple acts, noted Jennifer Brandel, co-founder and CEO of Hearken. She asked, “If your journalism, in the past, has been ‘extractive’ for some communities, how do you start to change that?”

She offered one example of a way to begin. If you’re going into a community to cover a tragedy, first take five minutes to “be a human.” For example, you could start by asking, “How are you doing?” And maybe take another five minutes to explain what it means to do an interview with a journalist, things like what “off the record” means, how quotes from the interview will be used, and what some of the consequences can be for people who appear in news stories.

“We have too often reported only on what’s wrong,” said Brandel. “How do we make time to tell stories about what’s right with our communities?”

Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado nonprofit Cultivando, noted that those with the least institutional power are the ones who can best describe the gaps between good intentions and the places where they have felt unheard.

“And they can best identify how to improve the institutions that have not served them,” added Gonzalez.

She described how “Promotoras” — Spanish-speaking health experts trusted in the Latino community — were vital to reaching those communities with essential COVID-19 information during the early stages of the pandemic. She called on local news organizations to learn from this model and forge connections with the trusted voices that already exist in diverse communities to better reach undercovered audiences.

Tiya Trent, program manager at Colorado’s Project Voyce, offered perhaps the most eloquent and concise guidance for how to make local reporting on historically underserved communities less extractive and more inclusive: “Nothing about us, without us.”

Another recurring theme: Centering local journalism around the needs of the community, rather than the newsroom’s priorities, is essential for sustainability.

“Community service is a mindset, not a tax status”, said Melissa Davis, director of the Colorado Media Project and vice president of the Gates Family Foundation. CMP has become a national model for collaboration by taking an “ecosystem” view of community needs, and connecting not only a wide range of nonprofit and for-profit local news outlets but also a full range of community stakeholders.

Steve Waldman, president of Rebuilding Local News, underscored what’s at stake when we lose local news and trust in news. He said research clearly documents the harm to civic engagement when local news goes away. There’s less voting, less trust in institutions, less diversity in “down-ballot” voting — and people lose the belief they have a say or voice in government.

Presenters also called for journalists to be stronger advocates for truth and democracy.

Journalists who cling to “impartiality” are putting the survival of the free press and democracy itself at risk, said Kyle Clark, host of 9NEWS’ popular local broadcast news program Next with Kyle Clark.

“It would be like refusing to report on a wildfire bearing down on our community,” said Clark. “It’s OK to be anti-wildfire, and it’s OK to be pro-democracy.”

More than one speaker observed that conversations among journalists about building trust were essential — but that the time for only talking was past, noting an urgent need for action.

Ultimately, sustainability for local journalism isn’t just one thing, and it isn’t just a task to be done with, noted Michael Bolden, API’s CEO: “One of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking of sustainability as a destination. Sustainability is a marathon. There’s no one silver bullet.”